What's your problem?

Q: I run an IT helpdesk for a fairly big company... I'm sick of always being taken for granted and moaned at. No-one ever has a good word for us and blames us for things that aren't our fault, mainly because they don't understand what we do. The company would grind to a halt without us. Morale in my team is running low. What would you do in my situation?

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A: You've very nearly answered your own question. The problem is a common one: 'they' don't understand what you do. But before you come to the comfortable conclusion that it's all 'their' fault, let me ask you this: do you and your team understand what 'they' do?

IT can be seen as a very discrete skill. IT people can go from manufacturing to service companies to retailing to government departments and feel little need to make much adjustment with each move they make. But to state the blindingly obvious, IT is never an end in itself. It is there to help the host company do whatever it's in business to do. So while the mechanics of IT remain more or less constant, the needs and priorities of its users vary hugely. The best IT departments not only provide a technically efficient service; they have also acquired a real feel for the peculiarities of the work that their company is engaged in.

You need to understand this - and so does your company. It seems to treat your team as a bunch of aliens, a regrettable necessity whose function is invariably associated with crashed systems, stress, threatening deadlines and extremes of frustration. Mutual incomprehension reigns and blame gets shuffled about like pass-the-parcel.

That's why you talk about Them; and I've little doubt that They talk about you as Them as well. What both you and they need to do is to get to know each other better, sort out mutual aims and misconceptions, and start, instinctively, to talk about Us.

Initiate meetings. Invite your users, including the moaners, to have a beer or two and tell you what bugs them. In turn, explain what bugs you. See if you can agree simple procedures that make everyone's life easier. And if your company goes in for things like pub quizzes, make sure you field integrated teams: not IT versus The Rest.

In a perfect world, your company would have organised all this sort of thing as a matter of course. Since they haven't, you'll need to prime the pump yourself. Tactfully, of course.

Q: I run a delicatessen chain in the North-west. It's a family business, which I took over from my father 15 years ago. Over the past two years the firm has grown considerably and I'm now starting to think of getting another person in to help me at a strategic level, with an eye on grooming them for succession. My 22-year-old son has always expressed an interest in taking over from me but - I'm loath to say this - I really don't think he's up to the job. How do I let him down gently?

A: Given that you yourself took over from your father, I suppose your son's sense of expectation is understandable - but I do hope you haven't given him even tacit encouragement. It's this phrase 'let him down lightly' that worries me. He really shouldn't have been up there in the first place.

Even if you rated him more highly than you do, he's far too inexperienced at 22 to be formally marked out for succession. And anyway, you've only been running the joint for 15 years: it seems a bit premature to start identifying a crown prince. I know succession planning is supposed to be a central part of good corporate governance but if you mark out someone too early and then keep them waiting in the wings for years it can have a stultifying effect on the whole business - not least on the anointed one.

As far as your son is concerned, much the best bet would be for him to embark on a career somewhere else altogether - though maybe in a related trade. He needs to prove to himself - and indeed, to others - that he can make his own way without the ever-present suspicion that he owes almost everything to being Daddy's boy. By making this suggestion to him, you're clearly challenging any hopes he may harbour of early preferment, but doing it in a confident and positive way. And, of course, if he were ever to return to your business, a successful stint elsewhere would make his re-entry a great deal more acceptable to the rest of your staff.

By all means take on someone senior to help you at a strategic level - but be sure you don't dangle the prospect of succession in front of them as part of the deal. It's far too soon to commit yourself and anyway, you shouldn't need to.

Q: I'm three months pregnant and wondering when I should tell my manager. The company I work for isn't known for being supportive of working mothers. There have been a few suspicious redundancies made of women on maternity leave. I intend to come back to work after having my baby but I'm really worried that I may be pushed out, despite doing a good job.

A: You hesitate, understandably enough, because you don't trust your company, but I can see no advantage in your waiting. Pregnancies have a habit of announcing themselves sooner or later and it would obviously be better if you broke the news first. What's more, the longer you delay, the more apparent it will become that you don't trust them.

So tell your manager right away. If they're determined to weasel you out, no amount of procrastination will help. But you're good at your job. If you play it dead straight with them, the chances are your company will do the same.

Jeremy Bullmore is a former creative director and chairman of J Walter Thompson London. His book, Another Bad Day at the Office, is published by Penguin at £6.99. Address your problem to Jeremy Bullmore at: editorial@mtmagazine.co.uk. Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into.

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